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MALAYSIA: A Festival of Flavor and Texture Called Nasi Lemak (Recipe)

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Ren and I made it our resolution this year to try every country’s national dish. Not that we weren’t already, we’ve been doing that but we wanted to make it a more formal category of this blog by sharing and presenting our experiences in an easier-to-digest format, hence our National Dish Quest.

Most people probably don’t know this but Will Fly for Food actually started off as a food and recipe blog. Ren’s a fantastic cook so for several years I had been building a database of her recipes in the Reneelicious Recipes section of this blog. We’ve shifted focus since then and Ren’s taken on other responsibilities which keep her from cooking as often, but it’s something we’d like to revisit. Ren frequently gets inspired by travel food shows so what better way to revive this part of our blog than to recreate and share recipes of all the national dishes we eat on our travels? So excited was Ren about the idea that she decided to recreate the beautiful nasi lemak dish we had (several times) in Malaysia a few years ago.

Some countries have more than one national dish so we’ll create a dedicated post for each. As much as possible, each will have a recipe as well as pictures, videos, and stories about our experience. 🙂

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Plate of nasi lemak

WHAT IS NASI LEMAK?

Nasi lemak is one of my absolute favorite things to eat in Malaysia. I just love all its different flavors and textures, especially that spicy sambal! If you’ve never had nasi lemak before, it’s basically a breakfast dish consisting of fragrant rice served with chicken, fried ikan bilis (small anchovies), roasted peanuts, cucumber slices, sambal, and a hard-boiled egg. Though traditionally a breakfast meal, it’s now commonly eaten throughout the day. The term nasi lemak literally translates to “fatty rice”, and is in reference to the richness of the rice cooked in coconut milk.

We visited Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi in 2013 and I had this on three separate occasions if I remember correctly. This plate in particular was served at the Central Market food court in Kuala Lumpur.
National Dish Quest: Nasi Lemak (Malaysia)

This one I had at the airport in Langkawi while waiting to board our plane back to KL. If you compare it to the previous picture, you’ll see that all the components are the same. I didn’t take a picture of it but I had it once more at the KL airport before flying back to Manila. It was at a Malaysian fast food chain called Marry Brown that specialized in nasi lemak!
National Dish Quest: Nasi Lemak (Malaysia)

Nasi lemak may be Malaysia’s national dish but it’s also popular in neighboring areas such as Singapore, Riau Islands, Brunei, and Southern Thailand. I’ve never had it here but it can apparently be found in my native Philippines as well, in the Bangsamoro region of Mindanao!

We had the version you see below in Singapore at a restaurant called Nasi Lemak Kukus. The sambal in Singaporean nasi lemak tends to be on the sweet and spicy side but this restaurant offers the traditionally spicy kind as well. You can see the two types of sambal on our plate below. It’s interesting to note that there’s a Chinese version of Singaporean nasi lemak as well. It’s served with a variety of sides like deep-fried chicken drumsticks, chicken franks, fish cakes, curried vegetables, and tongsan luncheon meat. At Nasi Lemak Kukus, each side is individually priced so diners can customize their plates. They didn’t have it there but I read that the rice in Chinese-Singaporean nasi lemak can sometimes be colored emerald green as well using pandan leaves.
National Dish Quest: Nasi Lemak (Malaysia)

NASI LEMAK RECIPE

INGREDIENTS

For Coconut Milk Steamed Rice

  • 2 cups rice
  • 3 pandan (screwpine) leaves (tied into knot)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 small can coconut milk (5.6 oz size)
  • Some water

For Tamarind Juice

  • 1 cup water
  • Tamarind pulp (size of small ping pong ball)

For Sambal Ikan Bilis (Dried Anchovies Sambal)

  • 1/2 red onion
  • 1 cup ikan bilis (dried anchovies)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 4 shallots
  • 10 dried chillies
  • 1 tsp of belacan (prawn paste)
  • 1/4 tsp of salt
  • 1 Tbsp of sugar

OTHER INGREDIENTS (Optional)

  • 2 hard boiled eggs (cut into half)
  • 3 small fish (sardines or smelt fish)
  • Fried chicken
  • Dry, roasted peanuts
  • 1 small cucumber (cut into slices and then quartered)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Rinse rice and drain. Add coconut milk, pinch of salt, and some water. Add pandan leaves into rice, then cook rice.
  2. Rinse dried anchovies then drain water. Fry anchovies until light brown, then set aside.
  3. Pound prawn paste together with shallots, garlic, and deseeded dried chilies with mortar and pestle. You can also grind them with food processor.
  4. Slice red onion into rings.
  5. Soak tamarind pulp in water for 15 minutes. Squeeze tamarind constantly to extract flavor into water. Drain pulp and save tamarind juice.
  6. Heat some oil in pan and fry spice paste until fragrant. Add in onion rings. Add in ikan bilis and stir well. Add tamarind juice, salt, and sugar. Simmer on low heat until gravy thickens, then set aside.
  7. Clean small fishes, cut into halves, and season with salt, then deep fry.
  8. Cut cucumber into slices, and then quartered into four small pieces.
  9. Dish up steamed coconut milk rice and pour some sambal ikan bilis on top of rice. Serve with fried fish, cucumber slices, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, and fried chicken.

* * * * *

Now that you’ve seen Malaysian and Singaporean nasi lemak, it’s time to feast your eyes on Reneelicious nasi lemak! Doesn’t it look fantastic?! Trust me, it tastes every bit as good as it looks. I’ve been having it for the last two days! 😀 If you follow Ren’s recipe above, then you can have a delicious plate of nasi lemak just like this. Try it!
National Dish Quest: Nasi Lemak (Malaysia)

Instead of regular fried chicken, Ren made hers with chicken lollipops. She even threw in a few pieces of fried biya (dried, butterflied goby fish) from Pangasinan. How lucky am I?! 😀
National Dish Quest: Nasi Lemak (Malaysia)

If you do decide to try this recipe, then please let us know in the comments section below how it turned out. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks! 😀

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Edwin Teo

Monday 16th of November 2020

Hi, I'm from Singapore, so I know this dish very well. I don't even have to try your recipe but I know it's a very good one. The only thing I can comment on is the actual coconut milk from a coconut but of course for convenience, canned is ok but not as good. Sometimes, I do find real frozen coconut milk from a well stocked Indian or Thai grocery store. I have not seen it at an Asian grocery store yet. But, great recipe everyone. Definitely try it.

JB & Renée Macatulad

Monday 16th of November 2020

Oh wow! Thank you so much Edwin! That means a lot coming from a local. We really appreciate it! :D

And thanks for the tip about the fresh coconut milk. We'll definitely try it sometime as it's not as hard to get where we are. I'm sure it'll make a world of difference. :)

Saif

Sunday 20th of October 2019

Hi JB & Renée Macatulad,

I see. I did not know they are not similar. May I ask what is the difference between sambal and sambal olek? I think I have come across in the store that sells sambal olek. Thanks

JB & Renée Macatulad

Tuesday 22nd of October 2019

Hi Saif, sambal olek is basically just chili paste. The one you want is usually just labeled "sambal" or "nasi lemak sambal". It's specifically for nasi lemak. :)

Saif

Saturday 12th of October 2019

I love nasi lemak. I never went to Malaysia, but I remember the first time I tried was in a restaurant in Cebu, and I find it very delicious. Can I just used ready made sambal found in a grocery, or I should make my own? Thanks

JB & Renée Macatulad

Tuesday 15th of October 2019

Hi Saif, you can use store-bought sambal, but the bottle should say just "sambal", not "sambal olek". That's something else. Hope that helps. :)

JB Macatulad

Saturday 18th of March 2017

Nasi Lemak is delicious Chester. Let us know how it goes. :)

Chester Livingston

Saturday 18th of March 2017

It was good to learn something new about Malaysian food I wanted to try to eat something different. Nasi Lemak look so delicious I will try that recipe tonight. Thanks.